Very belatedly... remembering Danny Kustow (10 May 1955 – 11 March 2019)

For writer Dave Thompson, it would be hard to write about the death of Danny Kustow, but no idea it would take this long. The news of the Tom Robinson Band guitarist's passing, back on March 11, came as a complete shock to him.
Publish date:
 The Tom Robinson Band - (l-r) Dolphin Taylor drums/vcls; Tom Robinson bs/vcls; Danny Kustow gtr/vcls; Mark Ambler org/pno

The Tom Robinson Band - (l-r) Dolphin Taylor drums/vcls; Tom Robinson bs/vcls; Danny Kustow gtr/vcls; Mark Ambler org/pno

Has it really been almost three months?

I knew it would be hard to write about the death of Danny Kustow, but I had no idea it would take this long.I didn’t even know him that well; I was a fan, not a friend, although he always said hello if he saw me at a gig, and sometimes put me on the guest list in exchange for a cigarette.

The news of his passing, back on March 11, came as a complete shock.I knew he’d been ill for a while, but that itself was absurd.Guitarist in the Tom Robinson Band at a time when they truly felt unstoppable, Danny was a force of nature in his own right, slashing, swaggering, pulling riffs and solos from who-knew-where, and leaving the first few rows headless every night. Guitarists like that don’t get sick.They just ram their machine heads through the disease’s tender bits, and then serenade its demise with a heaven-sent solo.

The Tom Robinson Band itself was… what can I say?Forty years on, I still rate TRB among the best half dozen groups I ever saw live, and Danny was a big part of that.

Tom got all the plaudits, and so he should have.Lyricist, vocalist, spokesman, and a damned sight better bassist than he has ever seemed to admit, Robinson was the mouthpiece that “punk rock” had been calling for… and not the “I’m so bored on the dole in my squat” form of punk that was the media’s vision of its body politik, but the real thing.The realization, sweeping across a nation’s worth of school-leavers-and-more, that something had gone horribly wrong with life.

Danny, on the other hand, tended to keep quiet and, to be honest, that was probably a good thing.He could hold his own in any conversation, but when you were sitting in the same room as Tom, nobody is listening to you.It’s a cliché to say he let his guitar speak for him, but sometimes the cliché gets it right.Except his guitar didn’t speak.It convinced you that you could conquer the world.

I first saw TRB at the end of ’76, on the night the Sex Pistols cussed out Bill Grundy on live London TV. They were playing a pub in Fulham, and you could feel the paranoia in the room, every time a police car went by.Nobody doubted that, thanks to the Pistols-whipped outrage that was already percolating in parental minds across the capital, “punk” was now destined to become public enemy #1.And TRB, though their music was cut from less incendiary moulds, were nevertheless destined to dance with that same mutant genre.

Image placeholder title

In the event, nothing happened.The gig went off well, I was besotted and, at least until the end of summer 78, I saw them every chance I could.Sang the songs, marched the marches, fought the fight, lived the life, wore the buttons, bought the records, read the fanzines.

Me and a few thousand… million… billion… I don’t know but it was a lot… others.Volunteering at benefit gigs, painting placards for protest marches, helping out however we could. A vast network of like-minded souls from a squidillion different backgrounds, all thosestories in the naked city, and everyone convinced that if we all think really hard, maybe we can stop the reign of terror. Woodstock for the worried.

That is what TRB soundtracked.Across Power In The Darkness; across the string of singles that the band notched up on either side of their masterpiece.Yeah, you can forget the bulk of their rushed second album, but you should pick up its highlights regardless.Grab the 77-79 Anthology box set that came out in 2013.And maybe you’ll find it odd that there’s people out there still fighting the same old wars today.But they’re a lot stronger now, thanks to the battles won back then.

TRB was never purely about the message, though, and that was Danny’s doing.Without him, TRB might have been just another protest band.With him, they were the Godzilla of the left.Some writers have compared him to Pete Townshend, and you could see that.But only if Townshend had completely skipped art school and gone to work as a panel beater alongside a feckless layabout named Roger.

He was schooled in the furnace of Alexis Korner’s blues, but late in the day, by Alexis’s standards, long after the R&B boom that cemented his name, and the purist Chicago echoes that he fostered upon his earlier acolytes.No pretty Brian Jones or fresh-faced Jimmy Page for Danny.

Paul Kossoff, Rory Gallagher,Chris Spedding… they were the mirrors he was more likely to look into.He played the guitar like he was kicking a wall, subtle as a flying wildebeest, and all the more virtuosic for the sheer understatement of what he was doing.He riffed and you wanted, more than anything, to riff alongside him.

Tom spoke for our dreams.Danny played for our desires, and rock’n’roll was just so unbelievably fortunate that the two of them found one another.And that TRB, for as long as it lasted, landed in a time and place where the ensuing tornado could find plenty to twist.

And then it was over.TRB split in early ’79, and how I hate this next sentence.Danny really didn’t do much after that.

Image placeholder title

A couple of bands that few people recall, and even fewer went to see.Occasional sessions, including some with Tom.There was a flurry of interest around Time UK, which paired him with the Jam’s Rick Buckler, but memories of the pair’s storied pasts were more potent than anything they could pull off in the present, so that was the end of that.

There was a brief but, in truth, fairly pointless TRB reunion at the end of the eighties,and Danny guested at one of Tom’s London shows in 2017.The rest of his time… the rest of his life… he kept himself to himself, largely forgotten by rock in general, until his death brought forth the torrent of tributes, love and memories that he so, so, deserved.

Memories of… oh, what’s the point?Everyone who saw TRB in concert, either before or during the first album period, will have their own indelible recollections of them, whether it was Tom gleefully conducting a choir of very menacing looking skinheads through a chorus of “sing if you’re glad to be gay,” or Danny grinning in delight as he bit down on a familiar riff, and a herd of bulldozers came roaring through the PA.

The night an invasion of bully boys was effectively quashed by the sound of Danny’s guitar… they came in search of gay heads to crack, and found the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band instead.

The days when simply wearing a TRB T-shirt could spark a conversation with strangers on the tube or the bus.The joy when “2-4-6-8 Motorway” became their crowd-and-DJ pleasing first hit, and “Glad to be Gay” was their second. The sheer sense of community that was engendered at even their most sold-out show.

I no longer remember most of the friends I went tosee TRB with, or the names of those I met at the gigs.But I still have the records and an old mirrored badge; I still know the words to most of the songs; and if I close my eyes and think real hard, I still remember getting Danny’s autograph on a damp beermat one night, and him betting me that, by the time I got home, it would just be a puddle of pulp in my pocket.He was right as well.

Sorry I’m late with this, Danny, but it was a hard one to write.

Sweet dreams.